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As Long as We Remember...

May 16, 2008

Antony & Cleo's Asp

Roy Meachum

In last week's Shakespeare Theatre Company's review of "Julius Caesar," I touched on why American directors and producers are loath to do repertory. Even plays by the same author can demand actors create a differently separate persona; in effect, that instills a schizophrenia that does not entirely go away no matter how long productions run.


Andrew Long as Mark Antony, Aubrey K. Deeker as Octavius Caesar with (background) Ted van Griethuysen as Lepidus and ensemble member Blake DeLong in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra,” directed by Michael Kahn.  Photo by Carol Pratt.

Andrew Long as Mark Antony, Aubrey K. Deeker as Octavius Caesar with (background) Ted van Griethuysen as Lepidus and ensemble member Blake DeLong in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra,” directed by Michael Kahn.  Photo by Carol Pratt.

Approaching "Antony and Cleopatra" there was some comfort in anticipation some characters were held-over from "Caesar." The very title promised a return visit from the distinguished orator who summoned "Friends, Romans and countrymen" successfully inciting rebellion. It was against the senators who made reality of the dread prophesy about the Ides of March.


But director Michael Kahn set out from the start to demonstrate the leading figures at the time of Caesar's assassination had grown long of tooth and gray of hair. Andrew Long's Mark Antony delights in longer, grayer hair; his teeth cannot be seen by the audience.


Suzanne Bertish presents a Cleopatra advanced in years way beyond the coquette who dallied with Julius Caesar and had a son that no one in Rome would recognize or even admit his existence. Ms. Bertish plays a courtesan queen who now seemingly cares less about her throne than finding comfort in her declining years.


Shakespeare's Cleopatra does not use her wiles to save Egypt, as with Caesar; her passion for Mark Antony rules her life. The same passion dominates the once fiery revolutionary and ambition be damned.


Cast in Elizabethan terms, passion dissolved into fluttering words and arch moves. The problem actors have always had with the Bard's version of these aging "star-crossed" lovers is how to portray the intensity of the attraction. They were, as they must have known, the last loves of each other's lives.


In "Antony and Cleopatra" the playwright employs a plot device that served him well in "Romeo and Juliet," another star-crossed pair, swapping genders. Upon hearing false rumors of Cleopatra's death, her noble Roman falls on his sword; when she learns about his demise, she calls for a poisonous snake to do her in.


Never mind what you heard, it was an asp not a cobra. The mistake may have been handed down because a cobra appears on pharaoh's crown, together with a vulture. The critters represent both Upper Egypt's sand and sparseness and Lower Egypt's marshes and wetlands, breeding grounds of all sorts of reptilian life.


Let me confess: I've never seen "Antony and Cleopatra" on-stage before; I know of it chiefly through reading the Oxford Edition of Shakespeare, while lying in bed in a 9th century German castle's tower, where I was stationed in the Army. The three volumes were bought in Paris' Brentano bookstore close to the American Embassy, while on leave.


Director Kahn and his strong cast and crew help the play leap off that edition's tissue-like paper. In particular, the set endows the production with a visceral power of its own; it was held over from "Caesar." Its multi-level stages permit the director to move scenes with lightning speed. That helps.


What helps even more is knowledge of the people and the passions mostly kept behind the curtain. The death of the ancient Egyptian monarchy coincided with the end of the Roman Republic.


Never again would citizens play a meaningful role in governing what became the world's greatest widespread empire, at least until the British splashed their red ink over 19th Century maps. Antony's partner Octavius became Rome's first absolute ruler, designating himself Caesar Augustus.


As in all his shows, Michael Kahn directs with a choreographer's cleanness and order. At any scene's end, the next has already started: that quick! No actor offered reason to niggle his playing.


We have the opposite of what Shakespeare had "lean and hungry" Cassius say in "Julius Caesar." The "fault" in the Shakespeare Theatre Company's "Antony and Cleopatra" lies in the stars, which is to say in the material, neither in the production nor the talented humans involved, themselves.


Still, they brought gloriously alive the Paris-bought Oxford Shakespeare's pages and for that, my great and heartfelt gratitude.

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